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Curse of the Chinese vase: The sale of a £228,000 heirloom sparked a ruinous war between Andrea Calland and her ex mother-in-law

ANDREA Calland can just about remember when she had a normal, happy life — a family life, with a partner and three children in a cosy pink cottage in North Wales. While never rich, Andrea could always pay the bills.

Today, that life lies in ruins and 47-year-old Andrea has barely a penny to her name. Her home is shortly to be sold at auction, and its contents are long gone.


But worse than all that is the loss of her family. Today, her three children - Oliver, 26, Sophie, 21, and 16-year-old Phoebe - are barely on speaking terms with their mother.


It is a catastrophic shift in fortunes and one that can be traced to a small, seemingly innocuous vase that sat for a long time — largely unloved — in Andrea’s hallway at her home in Ruthin.


The 5in, richly decorated Oriental vase looked, in Andrea’s words, ‘like something you might see in the window of a Chinese takeaway’.


Along with some other bric-a-brac, she decided to sell it at auction, hoping to make some money towards the cost of a laptop for her daughter.


But when it was sold at auction in 2009, it turned out to be an 18th-century Chinese antique worth hundreds of thousands of pounds. Unfortunately, this astounding news sparked a dispute that has continued for the past five years and laid waste to a family.


For while Andrea vehemently asserts that the vase was hers, her former mother-in-law, 76-year-old Evelyn Galloway, equally vehemently asserts it was hers — a family heirloom that was only loaned to Andrea.


In 2011, they went to court over the proceeds of the auction. The court found in Evelyn’s favour, leaving Andrea with a legal bill in excess of £100,000.


Now, three years later, the Mail can reveal that the war is still rumbling on, with Evelyn taking further legal action to recover her court costs. A bewildered Andrea is facing bankruptcy.


Each considers the other side to be greedy and money-driven.


‘No one had the remotest interest in that vase until it turned out to be worth something,’ Andrea said this week.


‘Evelyn had legal aid, despite having much more money than me, and she is happy to see me thrown out on the street while she sits there surrounded by antiques.


She can’t take them with her, but I hope what she does take with her is the knowledge that she has destroyed our family.


She is a sad, greedy old woman who has caused so much damage,’ she adds. ‘She’ll never be happy because she’ll never have enough. I just feel so betrayed because this is a woman I used to love, who is grandmother to my children. I don’t understand how she can live with herself.’


Evelyn, meanwhile, is equally scathing about her former daughter-in-law. ‘The fact of the matter is that she sold something that wasn’t hers,’ she says.


‘Then she got the bit between her teeth and was so determined she was going to keep the money that she risked her house on it.


‘The bottom line is that it was her choice to go to court in the first place. We never wanted it to get that far. We went to court with a 90 per cent chance of winning. She gambled her house on a 10 per cent chance.


‘We couldn’t understand why she hadn’t given up long ago. It is very sad for her — but it was her choice.’


Such is the embedded acrimony in the family that there are barely any undisputed facts in this tragic tale — aside, that is, from the vase’s provenance.


Made of gilt and copper, the ornament was commissioned by the Chinese emperor Quinlon, who ruled between 1735 and 1796. It was looted from the Summer Palace in Peking during the Second Opium War in 1860.


It ended up in, of all places, Birkenhead, where Evelyn’s father, James Aker, a keen art collector, bought it at auction for £15 in 1956. He subsequently passed it onto his daughter, who kept it in her home in Ruthin.


Evelyn and Andrea agree on one point at least: that at some stage in the early Nineties, the vase was handed over to Andrea and Steven, Evelyn’s son.


Andrea and Steven, now 52, met at a party in 1990, fell in love and set up home together, along with Andrea’s son from an earlier relationship.


The couple had two daughters together, but in 2001 the relationship turned sour and the couple split.


It is at this point, according to Evelyn, that she asked on a number of occasions for the return of the vase. Andrea maintains, however, that she did no such thing.


‘If she’d asked for it, she could have had it,’ she says. ‘I didn’t even like it. The vase stood on the window ledge burning incense, where it could have been knocked off at any time.’


What happened next made headlines around the country.


By late 2009, short of money and anxious to buy Phoebe a laptop, Andrea decided to try to sell the vase, alongside a number of other bits of bric-a-brac which, she says, she had collected around the house.


She took the vase to an auction house in Chester, where it was given a reserve of £500. About right, Andrea thought, having consulted a local dealer.


In fact, it sold for a whopping £228,000.


The first Andrea knew of this, she maintains, was in a phone call from the auction house the day after the sale, in which she was informed of the price — and also that she would be hearing from the police.


‘They told me that someone had been in touch to claim it was stolen — and that they had gone to Cheshire police. The auction house recommended I got a lawyer.


‘I couldn’t take it in — both the sum of money it had sold for and the idea I might have stolen it.’


Moreover, her accuser was none other than her former mother-in-law — a woman Andrea instinctively still calls ‘Granny’.


‘I was dumbfounded,’ she says. ‘Relations had been strained since Steven and I split up, but I didn’t think she would stoop to this.’


Evelyn, of course, sees it very differently. ‘We learned of the sale from a newspaper headline and knew immediately it was our vase,’ she says.



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‘We had to do something. It simply wasn’t hers to sell — and we could not stand by and let her walk away with all that money.’


Andrea was, indeed, interviewed by the police — after which she offered to hand over half the money to her mother-in-law. There was one condition: that she put it in trust for her two grandchildren. Evelyn refused.


‘It just wasn’t acceptable because it would have excluded my other grandchild — my other son’s daughter,’ she says.


‘Besides, we just knew Andrea would have manipulated the situation somehow and would have ended up with the money. That’s why we went to court. ’


Andrea, meanwhile, decided to fight — a decision that would prove catastrophic.


When the case finally arrived at Mold County Court in 2011, Judge Seys Llewellyn QC said that while Andrea had not been dishonest when she sold the vase, she had failed to take ‘reasonable steps’ to establish who owned it.


As a result, Mrs Galloway was entitled to the cash — £190,000 after auction houses expenses — which had been held in trust at three firms of solicitors.


The ruling was, he added, a ‘disaster’ for Andrea, ‘who thought that the sun had shined on her life for once’.


It is hard to argue with his assertion — particularly as Andrea also had to pay her own costs and those of Mrs Galloway, who was legally aided, plus interest.


Today, that is a sum in excess of £100,000. Andrea has been unable to pay it, despite putting her house on the market for £210,000 and selling most of its contents.


‘I’ve sold everything from all my jewellery to the dining table, but that’s raised only a few hundred pounds,’ she says. ‘There has been almost no interest in the house.’


Her attempts to appeal the original ruling, she says, were thwarted by the discovery that her solicitor has ceased practising.


‘I kept trying to contact him, but my calls and letters went unanswered,’ she says.


‘In the meantime, the money I owed was mounting day by day. I just didn’t have the money to pursue it any further.’ Evelyn has issued Andrea with an ultimatum.


My solicitor has sent her a letter saying that if her house is not sold by April 30, it will have to go to auction,’ says Mrs Galloway. ‘I think I’ve been reasonable. It’s Andrea’s choice whether she lets the house go voluntarily or we have to take further action.’


It is horrible state of affairs — yet Andrea’s impending penury is not, as we have said, even the worst element of this bewildering saga. She is no longer on speaking terms with her two eldest children — Oliver, an anaesthetist who lives in Sheffield, and Sophie, a student nurse.


Meanwhile, relations with Phoebe, who divides her time between her mother and her father’s home, are strained. All of them, she claims, disapprove of her actions.


‘Oliver no longer speaks to me,’ she says. ‘It is the same with Sophie, who I last saw on her birthday in February 2012.


‘I’ve texted and phoned her, but she won’t return my calls. She seems to have made her choice of sides, which is incredibly upsetting. I have tried to do the best by all my children.’


While she did not want to talk at length to the Mail this week, Phoebe said that while she still loved her mother, she was unhappy about how events had unfolded.


‘She is family and whatever happens I still love her — but let’s just say she’s not in my good books.’


Nor has Andrea’s estranged partner any sympathy for her. This week, he told the Daily Mail he believed that Andrea had sold the vase to make a point.


The relationship didn’t work out, and to me she’s still very, very bitter. She would do well to move on to other things,’ he says.


It’s a sentiment echoed by his mother, who still feels no sympathy for the plight of her former daughter-in-law.


‘She says her children won’t talk to her, but it is obvious why,’ she says. ‘She has put the children through misery purely for money.’


It is an accusation that leaves Andrea dumbfounded.


‘I’d say to come and walk in my shoes and then tell me I’m motivated by money,’ she says.


‘I’ve worked all my life, but after 26 years of raising children and keeping a home, I have nothing - even though I’ve done nothing wrong.’


It is hard to argue with the first part of that statement. There’s a ‘For Sale’ sign outside her cottage, while inside there is little more than a few cardboard boxes, a couple of foldaway chairs and a bed.


Andrea is pinning her hopes on a recent reduction in price to £170,000. If no buyer comes forward, the house will be auctioned at the end of the month.


Either way, she’ll be left without a roof over her head.


‘I have no absolutely no idea where I’ll live, though I’ve been offered a spare room in several friends’ houses,’ she says tearfully.


‘All I want to do is rebuild my life so that in time my children will come back to me. After everything, I need closure and to move on.’


Few would deny the wisdom of that sentiment — for all parties.


And what, meanwhile, has become of the vase?


Bought by Giuseppe Eskenazi, a billionaire collector of Chinese art, it was last seen on sale for £500,000 in New York — where, according to Andrea, it remains.


‘I sent the buyer an email letting him know how much sadness that money had caused,’ she says. ‘I said I felt as if it was cursed.


‘He wrote back to me to say he was really saddened and that he, too, thinks it’s cursed as he’s been unable to sell it.’


Cursed or just blighted, it’s fair to say the vase has brought immense unhappiness to many lives.

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